Photo: Stanley Chou, Getty Images
Justin Thomas collected the Jack Nicklaus Award as the U.S. PGA Tour player of the year a couple of days before heading to Malaysia in a bid to win his third successive CIMB Classic.
Little wonder then that the two-time defending champion was slightly off his game in the first round in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, managing only a 2-under-par 70 to sit six strokes behind leader Cameron Smith of Australia.
Smith opened with a blemish-free 8-under 64 and leads a U.S. PGA Tour event after the first round for the first time in 64 starts.
Keegan Bradley, Xander Schauffele and Poom Saksansin of Thailand were tied for second at 7-under.
Brendan Steele, coming off a victory last week at the Safeway Open at Silverado Resort in Napa, had an opening 67 to be three shots off the lead.
Thomas has barely had time to catch his breath after winning the FedEx Cup and playing in the Presidents Cup. He won his first tour title in Malaysia two years ago. He successfully defended it last year, and has had a transformative 2017 in which he’s won five titles and his first major, the U.S. Open.
He’s aiming to be the first player to win the same tournament three years in a row since Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic from 2009-11.
Schauffele, the U.S. tour rookie of the year, said he was taking plenty of notice of how Thomas approaches this course and is trying to keep it simple.
“The rough has been up apparently compared to last year. That’s what Justin told me,” he said. “I pretty much tried to copy everything that he did because I figured he’s a good guy to imitate out here.”
Thomas mixed five birdies with three bogeys. Schauffele and Poom made seven birdies to go into early contention, and Bradley eagled the 12th hole to make amends for his sole bogey.
Smith, an Australian, posted eight birdies, including five on the front nine.
LPGA Tour: South Korean Sung Hyun Park, who won the U.S. Women’s Open this year for her first major and is No. 2 in the world, birdied her last two holes for a 6-under 66 and a share of the lead in the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship in Incheon, South Korea. Park was tied for the first-round lead with Min-Sun Kim and Minjee Lee.
Cristie Kerr, coming off a victory last week in France, was among those at 67.
European Tour: Defending champion and home favorite Francesco Molinari was among six players who shared a one-stroke lead after the opening round of the Italian Open in Monza.
Jamie Donaldson, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Eddie Pepperell, Matt Wallace and Alexander Bjork also shot 7-under 64s at the Golf Club Milano, next to Monza’s Formula One circuit.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia stood in a group two strokes behind the leaders, and playing partner and fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm was among those three shots behind.